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In April Georgia passed HB87, an immigration law that mirrors Arizona’s unfortunate 2010 law, SB1070. Like SB 1070, Georgia’s illegal immigration reform and enforcement makes it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, impose harsh penalties for providing false papers to an undocumented immigrant, and empower law enforcement agencies to verify the immigration status of individuals from which they suspect are illegal in the country. In addition, Georgian law dramatically expands the obligation on employers to use the federal e-verify system, which is used to verify workers’ eligibility requirements.

These laws don’t work in a vacuum, and states and places that recently passed laws against immigrants have had significant negative economic consequences. For example, in Arizona, losses from SB 1070 alone were $ 141 million for conference cancellations and $ 253 million for total economic output with the potential for far more in the future. Cities that have passed anti-immigrant ordinances have also had high costs: Farmers Branch, Texas, spent $ 4 million on defending its laws, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania, will spend more than $ 5 million on that Spend defense of his law.

Georgian lawmakers recognize that the state’s bill will have an impact on agribusiness, which relies heavily on migrant workers to pick grain and gin cotton. The preamble to Section 20.1 of HB 87 includes the importance of an industry that generates 12 percent (around 67 billion US dollars) of the state’s gross domestic product:

The Georgian agribusiness is an important pillar of the economy of this state and essential for the quality of life of all Georgians. Understanding the impact of immigration reform measures on Georgia’s vital agribusiness is a fundamental key to implementing immigration reform.

Business groups tried to prevent the invoice from being passed on. Two hundred agricultural leaders sent a letter to the legislature expressing their opposition to the law. But lawmakers moved on – even with the Arizona experience and even recognizing the potentially devastating effects of the law on the agricultural sector.

What impact will the Georgian immigration law have on the state? It is true that given the remarkable diversity of agricultural products, seasonal cycles, and the size and sophistication of agriculture in Georgia, it is difficult to accurately quantify economic losses. However, we already have a sense of how devastating HB 87 will be to the Georgian economy, and there is evidence that migrant workers are bypassing the state due to its immigration law.

The aim of this report is to combine existing information on agricultural losses from HB 87 with in-depth reports and interviews with local farmers who are experiencing the effects of the transition for themselves. It also examines the long-term consequences for the state – and for America’s food security as a whole – if migrant workers continue to avoid Georgia.

The report contains four main arguments:

First, Georgia is already seeing severe labor shortages among workers who avoid the state because of its immigration law. This shortage is likely to reverse a decade-long trend in which fruit and vegetable crops make up an increasing proportion of the total agricultural value of the state, adding to the Georgian agricultural sector. Early reports from the state estimate the economic losses for the 2011 growing season at $ 300 billion to $ 1 billion.

We further estimate that Georgia would see an annual depreciation of nearly $ 800 million – the price of a crop when sold by a farm – if all hand-picked crops were replaced with mechanically harvested crops to alleviate the problem of security avoid adequate migrant workers. The farm gate value is just a metric of the amount of money at the time of sale by the farm itself, not the final price consumers might pay. So these numbers are conservative at best in terms of total economic loss to the state.

Second, the effects of a shortage of migrant workers will be felt most clearly by smallholders, who are already at a comparable disadvantage compared to larger farmers. We estimate the average small farm will lose $ 1.2 million in farm gate value annually to switching to machine-grown crops – a loss that drives most small farms down.

Third, Georgia’s economy is a complex and interdependent machine. Losses in the agricultural sector have a multiplier effect that is felt across the economy. A loss of nearly $ 800 million a year in crop value to the Georgian economy will significantly increase unemployment and harm the state as a whole.

By some estimates, each job in the agricultural sector supports three more “upstream” jobs, including jobs such as processing and transportation. HB 87 can ultimately mean the loss of jobs not only for migrants, but also jobs for American citizens in industries that also rely on agriculture. Similarly, many small communities in Georgia rely on the money and consumer power of migrant workers to stay afloat and are at risk of suffering significant losses to their already ailing economies.

Just as changes in the agricultural sector affect Georgia as a whole, changes in Georgia’s ability to produce food affect the country as a whole. The loss of hand-picked plants in Georgia such as berries, peaches and onions would force us to import these plants from other countries. This change leaves our food safety, health and safety standards to others. Food prices will also rise with longer travel times.

“We’re in a darkened room, walking around with our arms outstretched,” said Ben Evans, a cotton gin operator from South Georgia, worried about the future. Evans will have to wait for the 12-hour shifts to begin seven days a week before he can determine the extent to which his all-Hispanic-crewed business will be affected by the labor shortage.

Evans’ frank assessment could also describe where Georgia is coping with the challenges its leading industry is facing following last year’s legislative action.

The full effects of HB 87 may not be seen in Georgia for many months or even a few years. However, we hope that the preliminary findings presented in this report provide a cautionary story to lawmakers in other states as they consider their own version of anti-immigrant legislation.

A federal solution to the problem of undocumented work in the agribusiness, the Ag JOBS bill, has been on the table for more than 10 years. But the legislative opposition of the same generation of immigration restrictors who promoted these state measures against immigrants has prevented implementation.

More specifically, this agricultural crisis is just a symptom of the more general dysfunction in our broken immigration system. The only real solution to these problems is a comprehensive federal strategy. These government efforts are merely costly, counterproductive skirmishes that distract and prevent progress in reforming our immigration system.

Tom Baxter has been a Georgia journalist for 36 years. He is currently a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

Download this report (pdf)

Download the introduction and summary (pdf)

Read the report in your web browser (Scribd)